“Misunderstood” – Wilco
(Words/music: Jeff Tweedy and Peter Laughner, available on Being There, Reprise 1996)
When we start to frame this decade in music, particularly after we have some distance from it, Wilco’s narrative will be one that will represent the decade in many ways. At the turn of the century, Wilco was a quirky band caught between the “power pop” and “alt-country” genre sections at the local record store. By the end of the decade, the record store is on its last legs and Wilco stands as widely respected, alternative “powerhouse” teetering on the mainstream. In the years between, Wilco was the underdog screwed over by major label restructuring, the phoenix reborn as a mix of experimentalism and traditionalism, a band struck with personal and interpersonal strife, and a growing reputation as a live juggernaut. While it’s a bit of a generalization, Jeff Tweedy went from virtual obscurity to cult worship to voice of the indie establishment. This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg, as Wilco lends itself to a discussion of the changing technology in the music industry (form streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without a label contract to all of the bonus materials offered with each record and DVD), the gentrification of indie rock, and the formation of a new blueprint for success outside of the mainstream.
All of this to say that the past decade will ultimately be known as the decade that Wilco got weird and got popular. Like most thumbnail sketches, it’s reductionist logic, but in this case it’s neglecting a significant part of the band’s catalog. Wilco’s “weirdness,” for lack of a better word, goes through 1999’s subtly dark Summerteeth and (at least) back to “Misunderstood.” On Being There, an album that generally stays close to its country and blues-rock roots, “Misunderstood” provides a strange introduction. The guitars sound watery at times, gnarled at other points, and fuzzed out when neither of those descriptors fit. Amidst this haze of guitar, Jeff Tweedy sits at the center of it. With all the chaos around him, Tweedy alternates between G and D chords, quotes an obscure Midwestern punk band, and tosses off lyrics of suburban frustration, paranoia, and existential angst. Five years later, Tweedy would be lauded for an album full of weird sounds, tales of broken communication, and a darkly melodic streak. However, in 1996, “Misunderstood” was the first harbinger, both of Tweedy’s potential as songwriter and of the internal demons that nearly silenced his pen. In 2009, after their most straightforward record since, well, Being There, it’s easy to peg Tweedy and his band as complacent, but hearing the way Tweedy still barks out the final line in “Misunderstood,” especially when he hangs on “nothing” like a broken record, that the same creative mind that brought the spotlight in the early part of the decade was always there. If nothing else, tracing Wilco’s past only suggests that many turns remain in their path before Tweedy becomes entirely understood. I’m excited to see what story he writes this decade.
“Misunderstood” – Wilco